Woodpecker Gardens building site, Charlton
Workers were close to each other on site on Thursday afternoon

853 exclusive: Greenwich Council has said it is “concerned” after workers on a site in Charlton that is part of its home-building programme were seen ignoring guidelines telling people to keep more than two metres apart during the coronavirus emergency.

Pairs of workers building 32 houses at Sandpit Place for Meridian Home Start, a company set up by the council, were seeing standing close together on Thursday afternoon, despite the council telling its residents to keep more than two metres apart from people they do not share a household with.

The discovery comes a week after Greenwich said it would continue building the Woolwich Works creative quarter in the Royal Arsenal, vowing that workers there would comply with social distancing guidelines. Government guidance issued on 23 March stated: “Employers who have people in their offices or onsite should ensure that employees are able to follow Public Health England guidelines including, where possible, maintaining a 2 metre distance from others.”

Meridian Home Start site at Sandpit Place
Workers can clearly be seen flouting the guidelines

Two pairs of workers could clearly be seen holding conversations at close quarters with one other, contravening the guidelines.

No signage reminding workers of their responsibility to stay two metres apart was visible at the Sandpit Place site. A council nameplate for one of the new roads, Fordham Terrace, could be seen behind another worker, waiting to be installed.

London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan and a cross-party group of MPs – including Erith & Thamesmead’s Abena Oppong-Asare – have previously called for work on construction sites to be halted. The trade newspaper Construction News has called upon the government to halt all non-essential construction work, while a national campaign, Shut The Sites, was launched over Easter.

Greenwich Council has contacted the developer and says work should stop if workers cannot stay at a safe distance from one another.

What is happening at Sandpit Place?

Woodpecker Gardens site, Charlton
Greenwich Council said it was “concerned” to hear that site workers were not adhering to social distancing guidelines

Work began in February 2019 on the site, on the Charlton/Woolwich border, which is on the site of a former council day care centre, with council leader Danny Thorpe and housing cabinet member Chris Kirby posing for publicity photos.

The scheme, which is called Woodpecker Gardens, has seen 30 two-bedroom and 2 one-bedroom houses built by Meridian Home Start, which was set up as a council subsidiary in 2011 but then spun off as a community benefit society, a form of not-for-profit company. In 2017, three sites in the borough were transferred to Meridian to build homes which would be offered at or below 65 per cent of market rent – higher than the 40 per cent of market rent that council tenants pay.

The first site, Jack’s Acre, on Rochester Way, Eltham, opened last year with 25 new homes. A few hundred metres away, 33 homes are being built by Meridian on the site of an old youth club in Carnbrook Road, Kidbrooke. Another council site at Charlton Church Lane – the former Fred Styles House sheltered housing scheme – has also been transferred to Meridian for another project.

While Meridian is legally independent of the council, all three projects have been heavily promoted by the town hall and share similar design features with the council’s own new-build programme, Greenwich Builds. Work has stopped on the Greenwich Builds schemes, including a flagship modular building project in Plumstead which the council had hoped to have completed in just a few months.

Google Streetview grab of the Woodpecker Gardens site
The site before construction started (photo: Google)

A Greenwich Council spokesperson told 853: “At the Royal Borough of Greenwich we take the health and safety of all staff, the public and our contractors seriously and would never condone any practices that put anyone at risk.

“We do not manage work on Meridian sites and we have no legal responsibility for the site practices. However, we are concerned to learn that social distancing might not be being observed and have contacted the developer. If work can be done safely we would welcome that. However, if it cannot, it should stop.

“It is worth noting that the government has not closed construction sites and in fact is keen for work to continue, providing it is safe to do so, as the sector is important to the economy of the country. A number of sites have closed where they cannot operate in line with social distancing guidelines but a number of sites across London remain operational and we recognise that work is ongoing as increased housing stock is so important in London.”

Woolwich Works still at work

Woolwich Works
The Woolwich Works site as it was in February

Work has begun again at Woolwich Works, the council announced late on Maundy Thursday, a day after the Labour MP for Erith & Thamesmead, Abena Oppong-Asare, signed a letter organised by the former Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron to the business secretary Alok Sharma stating: “Ongoing work in the construction industry is jeopardising the ability of many hundreds of people to adhere to Public Health England’s guidance, putting their own safety and that of their households at risk.

“The measures in place do not adequately protect those in the construction industry working on non-essential projects. I therefore call on the government to end any uncertainty and mandate the closure of all non-essential construction sites.”

Oppong-Asare declined to comment when contacted by 853 about Woolwich Works. The site is outside her constituency.

On the same day as the council’s announcement, Construction News also wrote to the business secretary Alok Sharma to outline the concerns of its readers. “Separation by 2 metres is routinely impossible on sites due to the physical restrictions of walkways, stairways, lifts, scaffolding and vehicle cabins,” wrote its editor Lem Bingley, pointing out that social distancing could also led to workers risking their own safety, such as attempting to lift heavy loads on their own.

The £31m project, formerly known as the Woolwich Creative District, is due to open later this year. It is seen by the council as key to rejuvenating the area’s battered fortunes. It has been billed as a rival to the Southbank Centre, with immersive theatre company Punchdrunk its main tenant along with Europe’s first majority back and minority ethnic orchestra Chineke!, Woolwich-based Protein Dance and the Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair. Some Labour councillors have privately voiced concerns that the project will mainly benefit Berkeley Homes, which is developing the rest of the Arsenal, while the Tory opposition has raised questions about the cost.

Social distancing banner in Maryon Park, Charlton
Greenwich Council has placed banners across the borough imploring people to keep their distance from one another

The council spokesperson said: “It is worth noting that the government has not closed construction sites and in fact is keen for work to continue, providing it is safe to do so, as the sector is important to the economy of the country. A number of sites have closed where they cannot operate in line with social distancing guidelines but a number of sites across London remain operational.

“The Woolwich Works is a large site with over five large buildings and provides the opportunity to have a reduced number of staff working and achieve social distancing, focusing on single-person refurbishment work.

“The site was temporarily closed while a comprehensive review and risk assessment was undertaken. This review was based on the government-backed Construction Leadership Council Site Operating Plan (SOP). Mace undertook a risk assessment and produced a carefully considered SOP for the site that was comprehensive and enabled the works to be adjusted to facilitate them to be undertaken strictly in accordance with social distancing guidelines.

“During the temporary closure a range of changes have been made on site that will ensure the SOP is followed. The site will operate at a reduced capacity, with reduced workforce and will be constantly reviewed by the Mace board and the council and adjusted as necessary.”


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